Review: Hotline Miami

Frustrated by ploddy games overly-reliant on poorly-paced stories?  Hotline Miami is your high-octane, blood-soaked cure.  Fast and punchy action combines with just enough of a thought-provoking narrative to give an antithetical take on your traditional action thriller.  It's not for kids, and a little repetitive, but if the pixel art style isn't a turn-off for you, you'd be remiss not to check this game out.
Review: Hotline Miami
Date published: May 10, 2015
2 / 3 stars

Hotline Miami is an arcade twin-stick shooter/brawler hybrid developed by Dennaton Games and produced by Devolver Digital.  It released to no small amount of controversy at the time, given it's blood-splattered scenes and ultra-violence, but the question is - does that actually detract from the game, or does it stand on its own just fine regardless?  I'm happy to report that for the most part, Hotline Miami does just fine, and in fact subverts the violence of that gameplay in an interesting way.

The shooter/brawling mechanics are tight and speedy

Hotline Miami wastes little time in ferrying the player into it's neon-drenched bloodsport, although it thankfully eases you into the action with a fairly decent difficulty curve. From pretty much the get go the break-neck pace of the game is established however, with even the first mission being a speedy bash-fest over a briefcase.   The combat is very simple for the most part, with either melee weapons which are obviously very limited in range but quiet, or guns with much longer range but also greater noise, being employed.  It's best to think of each mission as a puzzle of sorts, for while skill can carry you to a certain way, it's more a game where you are relying on utilising your environment in creative ways to overcome the various mobster enemies you fight.

And that quickness both of the kill and of the restart is what makes the game as simultaneously frustrating and addicting; you're never out of the game for more than a heartbeat, which keeps the game engaging and it never feels too much like you're spinning your wheels in the mud.  The weapons - especially melee - have a feeling of impact and indeed, a lot of the game utterly revels in the visceral impact of that and the various execution moves.

The mechanics with both melee and guns feel good and maintain the clip the game progresses at well, and the tertiary mechanics serve this well.  You can bash one guy with a door, melee another, and throw your bat at the guy across the room in the blink of an eye.  It's easy to understate how good that pace of combat makes the game feel, and indeed, it is very much what sets Hotline Miami apart from many other, much slower and more mundane shooters.

Hotline Miami is as blood-soaked as pixel games come

This most assuredly is not a game for small children, to say the very least.  Pixellated, animated violence this may be, but it's graphic and gory all the same, and very much part of the central theme of the game.  This is not a nice game for nice people.  Chronicling the exploits of someone who is ostensibly a spree killer completing all manner of nefarious deeds at the behest of vague messages left on his answering machine, Hotline Miami treats us (if treats is the word) to an impactful and gritty descent into the violent world of our assumedly-criminal protagonist, and it holds no punches in twisting the dagger of that message.

The wonderful thing about the story in this regard is it is both entirely unsubtle and subtle at the same time: posing some quite obvious questions, both in dialogue and in our heads, but leaving the answer and conclusion largely to ourselves.  Other than in brief between-mission cutscenes, most of the story-telling is done with the environment, in a way that harkens back to the grand tradition of Thief, and while it doesn't hit quite that stride or get that high, it is, nonetheless, a brilliantly-told story, just deep enough to compliment the gameplay without overwhelming it.  Usually a game doesn't strike that balance, feeling either more mechanical or more story-based, but Hotline Miami strikes that balance masterfully.

Art direction furthermore drives the game along,
with only a couple missteps

Let's just get one thing out of the way: love or hate the actual music and its style, Hotline: Miami's soundtrack is perfect for the game, evoking this weird juxtaposition of easy-going 80s synth music with hard and heavy early guitar in parts, and it is probably one of my favourite video game soundtracks, along with Transistor and Blood Dragon.  Scattle and Perturbator in particular have outdone themselves here, and Scattle's "Knock Knock" is probably an unintentional title theme for the game, encapsulating both the style and strangely waify aggression the game favours.  Combine that with a retro pixel aesthetic in the art style and it feels retro from tip to tail, so to speak, and that very much seems the intention.

Whether you like the pixel-art style is a subjective preference, but for my part, I mostly did, with the exception of some of the character portraits, which seemed clunky and low-effort.  The top down in-game stuff put me in wind of Dreamweb, except used by a game that actually gives two shits, and the animations seem responsive and fluid, without anything standing out as silly or oddly-done, so it's already head and shoulders about most to-down pixel art style games in that respect.  I can't say I was particularly enamoured with it (probably the one part of the game I wasn't fond of) but neither did I hate it.

One thing worth mentioning in that regard is that if you are susceptible to simulation sickness this game might be a little hard on you - the combination of colour, fast movement, and what have you, can certainly feed that.  I only get simulation sickness in very specific situations usually, but the movement does do my head in a bit over longer play periods.

The repetition of Hotline Miami is both strength and weakness

Personally, I found myself easily caught up wanting to replay old missions to do them better, and it is quite easy to be swept up in the "one more mission" sort of sensibility whereby you stop playing when you realised its tomorrow and you should probably have eaten at least 16 hours ago.  The danger of any repetition of course, is people have varying tolerances for it, and if you don't get caught up in that feeling it can certainly feel a little reliant on replay to get length out of it.  For my part, I would be quite happy with the game if I just played it through start to finish, so I find it a somewhat moot complaint, but the replay value is mostly in unlocking masks and weapons, or simply doing better in grand "score attack" tradition, which doesn't appeal to some.  To be honest I'm one of them, but I found enough fun in the combat that it didn't bother me replaying, and in fact I wanted to, for just that reason.

Frustrated by ploddy games overly-reliant on poorly-paced stories?  Hotline Miami is your high-octane, blood-soaked cure.  Fast and punchy action combines with just enough of a thought-provoking narrative to give an antithetical take on your traditional action thriller.  It's not for kids, and a little repetitive, but if the pixel art style isn't a turn-off for you, you'd be remiss not to check this game out.